Well, that movie made me feel totally irrelevant to anything that any audience could want and 119 years old. –Jack Nicholson on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Honestly, about the only New Hollywood people whose opinions on the MCU I’m even vaguely interested in are Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman, and then only vaguely. And you may note that what they have in common is previous appearance in superhero films. Oh, they’re both DC, but still. Their thoughts on how the two compare would actually come from a place of awareness, and I’d be curious as to what they think the differences and similarities are. They’re both retired, so they’re not making appearances in the new movies, but if they weren’t, would they? Further, we know what Nicholson thinks of Heath Ledger’s Joker; is he as annoyed by Jared Leto’s as everyone else?
There’s some parallel, you see. Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman have a connection with superhero movies, and it’s reasonable to care. But what we do these days is ask literally everyone what they think, because it’ll spark discourse. Big Director A Hates The MCU; Big Actor B Wants To Play [Character]. It’s exhausting. And while I’ll admit I find the latter interesting, inasmuch as I’m curious as to people’s favourites, that doesn’t mean the question always needs to be asked. If superhero fatigue is real, it is the persistence of the question, not the persistence of the movies.
In part, this is because, as I’ve said many times, superhero media is not as ubiquitous as people believe it is. No, really. A few movies a year; a recurring cycle of Marvel on Disney+. But the Arrowverse is winding down, and if any other network has a superhero series, I, for one, don’t know about it. There are a few scattered shows on other streaming services, but if you compare even the height of superhero media to the height of the Western, you’ll see the difference immediately. All three networks from the time were playing multiple Westerns every week, and there were literally dozens of Western movies in the theatres. It is possible to avoid superhero media entirely.
Avoiding the discourse? Yes, that’s a challenge. And part of the problem is the belief that not only does everyone have something to say on the subject, everyone should have something to say on the subject. But despite “these movies aren’t made for you” being some of the laziest response to legitimate criticism, the fact remains true that not everyone has to like them. If you find any individual movie boring, or any genre Not Your Thing, that’s okay. It isn’t elevated to an important criticism just because you had one of the best-loved movies of 1975.
Has the Hollywood landscape changed? It sure has. However, that’s at least in part due to not the excesses of the MCU but the excesses of the New Hollywood generation itself. Remember, these men were rising to prominence at the end of the studio system. The industry at the time was in chaos and didn’t know what would work, and a lot of these guys were making tiny independent movies that made a huge splash, a phenomenon that would be repeated to a lesser but still notable extent in the ‘90s. Honestly, I’m much more interested in hearing their reactions to movies like Clerks, movies which are their natural heirs.
Because once the big fiascoes of New Hollywood really started making themselves known, the studios stopped just throwing money at them. A Heaven’s Gate now and again wasn’t going to end an era. But Heaven’s Gate after The Cotton Club, with only an occasional Reds in between, was going to do it. The studios frankly pivoted toward cheaper material with more guaranteed income. You know, like Ferris Bueller. The budget there was about $5 million, and it made $70 million. New York, New York had a $14 million budget and brought in $16.4 million, and if its theme is one of the best-known songs about the city there is, no one actually remembers it’s that new.
The current pivot is to movies the studios think are a guaranteed investment; that’s hardly new. This means, however, a lot of adaptations of popular properties and a lot of sequels, a lot of remakes and a lot of retreads. If you already spent the money for the TERF wizard rights, it’s only the diminishing returns on the terrible, terrible prequels you’re making that will get you to stop making them. They’re not guaranteed money-makers anymore. That’s Hollywood. That these men rose in an era where the studios didn’t know what was a guaranteed money-maker is their own good fortune.
And I do keep saying “men.” I think part of the reason their movies were flopping is that they were movies made by cis-het white guys for cis-het white guys. There’s a certain exploration of class in them, especially from people like Martin Scorsese, but the most ethnic diversity you tend to get is “in my parents’ day, people didn’t think of Italians as white.” Which, while certainly true, is kind of missing quite a lot of the remaining US population. The women in these movies are there to serve the men, not the plot, and most of them don’t really matter and could vanish entirely without changing the story. Since women tend to buy more movie tickets than men, and since PoC are a huge market for movies, it only makes sense that viewers would get tired of not seeing themselves or stories that care about them.
Ferris Bueller isn’t why Jack Nicholson couldn’t get his movie about Napoleon made. Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings isn’t why your own favourite independent director is having trouble getting a movie made. The issue, as always, is Hollywood economics. It’s an industry; in LA, it’s most often simply referred to as “the industry,” as if there’s only one, or anyway only one that matters. Yes, those are the movies that are being made instead, and if you don’t like those movies or feel like they’re not for you, that can be frustrating. Yes, it’s that the studios are trying to draw in as many people as possible, and they think that adapting a currently popular YA novel is a better bet than adapting the story of Henry Box Brown or making a movie version of Assassins starring Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Colbert (seriously, this needs to happen), well, that’s just how it is. I don’t like it, either.
Instead of asking about the MCU, interviewers should start asking about the financing of movies in a more general way. Hollywood accounting is one of the most opaque things in the known universe, and that’s not acceptable. If I ran the world, studios would be audited regularly and would be legally required to keep their books open for people who wanted to take a look. It takes ridiculous lengths of time for even smash hits to officially be declared profitable by the studios, and that’s nonsense. It’s a much bigger problem than the existence of Black Widow.